BACKGROUND: The onset of the moves that brought about the crisis in the Ukraine can be traced to the EU’s initiative to build closer ties with the Ukraine, through its inclusion in an Association Agreement. Before the Ukrainian president’s abandonment of this plan, the ratification of this treaty was to take place at an EU summit in Vilnius, which was to be held in November 2013. Intense pressure from Moscow, together with a Russian readiness to provide vital comprehensive assistance to Ukraine, whose economic situation is extremely critical, is said to have brought about Yanukovych’s change of heart. This decision led to a demonstration in Kiev on November 13, 1013, wherein thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate against this step and against the Russian pressure that brought it about, demanding a return to the policy of entering into an agreement with the EU. The center of opposition in central Kiev turned into mass demonstrations.
In February 2014, a compromise between the government and the opposition seemed imminent, brokered by representatives of Russia and the EU countries, a compromise that broke down as a result of a radicalization in opposition activity and the resulting response from the government. At least 80 people were killed, many more wounded. Yanukovych left Kiev shortly thereafter. After Yanukovych’s removal, an interim government was established in Kiev until general elections could be held on May 25, 2014.
President Putin’s first reaction to what he saw as the unlawful ousting of a legitimate president through by the illegitimate means of public demonstrations was to cancel Russia’s huge financial commitment to Ukraine, as well as the intention to cut Russian gas prices. Putin then declared his intention to ensure the safety of Ukraine's Russian-speaking population, in addition to simplifying the process of Russian passport applications for those among that same population who want to apply. Russia's intervention in the Crimean Peninsula began in the end of February, at first through local representatives of the pro-Russian section of the population and unidentified armed civilians, soon followed by a Russian army invasion. Russia has been in control of the Crimean peninsula since the beginning of March. The results of the Crimean referendum on becoming part of Russia, which was held on March 16, reflects the dynamics created by the Russian invasion of the region, and intensifies the tension between Presidents Putin and Obama.
IMPLICATIONS: The disregard for Russia’s particular interest in Ukraine displayed by the U.S. and EU, as well as their encouragement of Ukraine's economic integration with the EU and their support for a change of government resulting from mass demonstrations and public protests, was bound to result in Russian countermeasures. Therefore, there should have been no surprise in Washington or in Brussels at Moscow’s response.
Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula should not be understood as a reaction to the Ukrainian crisis, but as an exploitation of it. President Putin’s move in Crimea is intended to exploit the crisis in Kiev, which presents an opportunity for Russia to achieve its wider goals, relating to its geo-strategic status in the Black Sea region and the Mediterranean Basin. Crimea’s strategic importance to Russia should not be underestimated. Control of Crimea will bestow upon Russia the status it desires in the Black Sea region, unattainable in its current situation of leasing naval bases from Ukraine for a specified period of time. Moreover, control of the Crimean Peninsula will significantly contribute to Russia’s hold on the Mediterranean Basin and will help it to fly its flag in that vital maritime region.
As a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia lost most of its previous access points to the Black Sea. Most of the coastline was then within the sovereign territory of two newly independent countries, Ukraine and Georgia. This is a constraint to which Russia is still struggling to adapt, since it has always been a country with limited access to the open seas, most of all due to climatic factors. President Putin has already proven his abilities to exploit crises in order to further his broader strategic goals; for example, in the Russian-Georgian war in 2008. As a result of that war – which began in South Ossetia – Russia de facto made Abkhazia a protectorate, hence obtaining control over another coastal region on the Black Sea.
The Ukrainian crisis has created another golden opportunity. Putin knows how to take advantage of this crisis and Russia’s moves in Crimea are not aimed at achieving an advantage in the ongoing political dialogue with Obama. Russian control over Crimea is a goal in and of itself. The amendment of Khrushchev’s 1954 decision to transfer the peninsula to Ukraine, which seemed politically insignificant at the time, and returning it to Russia, has been Russia’s goal for years. However, the strategic advantages of controlling the Crimean Peninsula are the key factor behind Russia’s move in the opportune circumstances created by the crisis in Kiev.
From the Russian standpoint, experiences from the war in the Caucasus in 2008 are still valid and are part of the calculation in Putin’s decision-making processes in the current crisis. Importantly, the 2008 war demonstrated the unwillingness and inability of both the U.S. and the EU to block a Russian military move toward advancing its position in an area that Russia regards as within its sphere of influence. As long as the U.S. is still involved in Afghanistan and in Iran, and in light of president’s Obama decisions regarding Syria, there is a window of opportunity that allows Russia to exploit opportunities such as those presenting themselves in the Ukrainian crisis.
It is important to future international dialogue on Ukraine's future that both the U.S. and the EU understand that Russia is in the Crimean Peninsula to stay. Crimea is not a subject for dialogue, as far as Putin is concerned, and the discussion between the foreign players involved in resolving the crisis, in his opinion, should start from that point. Additional threats remain a possibility, as well as further steps taken by Russia into Eastern Ukraine.
CONCLUSIONS: Ukraine is a central issue in Russia’s perception of its national security. Russia’s geographical characteristics make Ukraine vital and Russia considers the country to be of strategic importance on the highest level. In this light, there is nothing surprising about Russia's reaction to the EU's initiative to offer Ukraine a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. But Russia's involvement in Crimea complicates matters and severing Crimea from Ukraine is a separate issue. It is not primarily a Russian move to maintain its influence in Ukraine; even if Crimea would preserve its seemingly independent status, and is not formally annexed to Russia, Russia will maintain its influence in the peninsula. Instead, Russia will threaten to take further military steps in Ukraine, and may even do so, in order to strengthen its position in future discussions on the future of this country.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Dr. Avinoam Idan is a political geographer and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia- Caucasus Institute, based in Washington DC. Prior to his academic career, he served in the Israeli Embassy in Moscow during the break-up of the Soviet Union.